With the Backyard Brawl coming up this week and the Big East Title potentially on the line, whose got the edge? I think West Virginia will win and here are five reasons why:
1. The Big East Title is on the line. For West Virginia to take back the Big East title for the first time in three years, they must beat the Panthers. BCS hopes aren't as bright for WVU as they are for Pitt, but that doesn't mean they're not there. The Mountaineers may need some help from South Florida or Cincinnati over the next two weeks, but they know that will be a moot point if they can't come out of Heinz Field with a win.
2. The Mountaineer defense is legit. While this season has had its ups and downs for BIll Stewart and crew, no unit in the Big East conference has been more consistent than Jeff Casteel's defense. Laden with talent and experience, the Mountaineers have been tough to score against all season. The Mountaineer Defense is fourth in the country in points allowed, giving up only 12.5 points a game. Tino Sunseri has been able to manage games for the Panthers so far this season, but in order to beat the Mountaineers, Tino's going to have to make some plays. When he does, I expect the opportunistic Mountaineer secondary to be there ready to gobble up interceptions and keep the Panther offense on its heels.
3. You might not know it, but the West Virginia running game is coming alive. Much of the Mountaineers' struggles this season have revolved around not getting the running game moving forward. Noel Devine has finally recovered from a nagging injury sustained early in the season, and last week against Louisville demonstrated that he's again capable of making the quick cuts that have earned him national attention in the past. The last two weeks have seen the emergence of Shawne Alston as a viable threat, as Alston has done great work in the second half of each contest to help grind out the rest of the game for the Mountaineers.
4. Geno Smith has bounced back from his mid-season struggles. With the running game finally paying off for the Mountaineers, Jeff Mullen and the rest of the coaching staff has been able to reduce the number of times Geno Smith has to throw the football. This forces the defenses to respect the run game, and gives Smith more time to make decisions behind the admittedly suspect Mountaineer offensive line. Since throwing three interceptions in the Syracuse game, a loss which largely rests on Smith's shoulders, the WVU coaching staff has gone to the pass less, but Geno has been arguably more successful, throwing four touchdowns and only one interception in the last two contests.
5. The 2007 factor. No single phrase in Morgantown elicits a sadder reaction than "13-9". While these are two decidedly different teams than those who squared off three years ago, there's still no love lost. In many ways, 2007 represented the rebirth of the Backyard Brawl rivalry for the current generation. Since Pitt had been so miserable up to that point the current generation of fans had replaced Pitt with Virginia Tech as WVU's most hated rival. Once WVU's national title hopes were dashed in 2007, all of that changed. It's one of the great cliches in sports to say "These teams hate each other and will play hard no matter if they're 11-0 or 0-11," but it's completely true in this case. West Virginia knows its hopes of going back to the BCS are still alive, and to do it they must dispatch a hated rival. I expect them to get it done.